There is a scene in the 1965 film The Cincinnati Kid in which a rain-drenched Steve McQueen walks down the nighttime streets of the French Quarter looking wretched. He passes a doorway and hears music coming from inside so he peeks in. The band is playing a mournful blues tune and at the piano is a little figure in a red cap pounding the keys. She turns, singing in a warbling voice, and looks at Steve McQueen’s character with woeful eyes that seem to see right through him. This is Sweet Emma Barrett and she is playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This depiction would become one of the lasting images of revival-era New Orleans jazz.
Born in New Orleans in 1897, Sweet Emma was a self-taught singer and pianist who had had a full career in music before she reached the height of her fame in the 1960s. She played with several legendary bands in the early days of jazz including a 13-year stretch with the Original Tuxedo Orchestra. She also worked with Armand Piron, John Robichaux and Sidney Desvigne. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until her recording debut with Riverside Records in 1961 that she reached worldwide success. For a brief period she was in films, on television, and on the covers of magazines. She became known as “The Bell Gal” because she always wore a red cap and bells on garters below her knees that would jingle as she played. In 1967 she suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left arm, but she still continued to play as often as she could until the very end.
It seems that over time Sweet Emma has slipped back into obscurity once again, known mostly by niche enthusiasts and those who knew her in real life. Meschiya Lake is one such enthusiast who has made international fame as a traditional jazz singer with her band the Little Big Horns. She cites Sweet Emma as a major influence and will be paying tribute to her at this year’s Jazz Fest.
Can you recall the first time you heard a Sweet Emma recording?
The first time that I heard her, the first record that got me into traditional jazz at all, which is what I do for a living, was the record she recorded with Preservation Hall in 1964. The first traditional jazz tune I ever learned was ‘I’m Alone Because I Love You,’ which is still pretty heavily in my repertoire to this day. It’s still not really too common to see a woman play music and to see a woman as part of the band and not just a vocalist who’s up there to look pretty. She was in the core, in the center of the band.
What made you decide to do a tribute?
I was asked to do it by Quint Davis, the producer of the festival. He came to the Blue Lu Barker tribute I did last year. He wanted to feature musicians like Sweet Emma and Blue Lu who started our rich musical tradition and put them in the limelight so that people coming to the fest to see the bigger acts might come and get a sense of where all this music came from. The big name acts get people to come to the festival but a lot of people who listen to pop music might not know that pop music essentially came from New Orleans, as well as all modern music. All modern music came from what started here in New Orleans in the early 1900s. I think it’s fascinating and a lot of people might feel the same way.
Are there any songs in particular that you feel you have to include?
I’m certainly going to rely on the track listing from the 1964 recording. We’d like to do the whole album, but I’m not sure there’ll be enough time. That’s kinda what’s in my mind. Certainly we’ll do ‘I’m Alone Because I Love You’ and we’ll throw some ‘Ice Cream’ in there too.
Who do you plan on using in your lineup?
I contacted Ben Jaffe at Preservation Hall to ask for his blessing because I didn’t want to be just this girl who’s like, ‘I’m gonna pay tribute to Sweet Emma!’ without giving the nod or paying homage to where all this actually came from. When possible I’ve tried to get people in the band who had actually played with her. So I’ve got Orange Kellin on clarinet, he played with her. Don Vappie’s in there, I’ve got Shannon Powell on drums, and Jason Jurzak is on bass. Shaye Cohn is gonna be doubling as a trumpeter and a pianist because I certainly can’t play piano like Sweet Emma. Nobody wants to hear me try! So I’m gonna see if she’ll wear the cap and the jingle bells. Somebody’s got to. If Shaye doesn’t want to wear the bells I’d be more than happy to. Maybe we both will! I’m excited, it’s gonna be super fun.
MESCHIYA LAKE REMEMBERS SWEET EMMA BARRETT: SUNDAY, APRIL 29—ECONOMY HALL TENT, 4:25 P.M